It's made history interesting for millions of kids. Author Terry Deary tells Diane Parkes how the Horrible Histories concept has succeeded in bringing some bold truths to children.
Q: When you wrote your first Horrible Histories, did you ever imagine the idea would go on to be so successful?
A: We didn’t at all. I had written about 50 books by then and had got used to the idea of them selling for a few months and then going out of print. With the first Horrible Histories I wrote, the publisher said ‘writing is like a sausage machine and you have to keep stuffing in at one end so something comes out the other end – it is like a process’.
But I never imagined I would have a series which would become first of all iconic and secondly that would still be selling 20 years later because books, especially children’s books, don’t tend to do that. I mean, there is Roald Dahl, but I can’t think of anyone else who is still selling so well. What usually happens is that people have sensational ideas and they sell really well for a while but they do tend to come and go. It is a shame you can’t predict which are the ones which will last!
Q: What do you believe is behind the popularity of Horrible Histories?
A: Nobody had done anything like them before and they filled a desperate need. There were fact books for children but they tended to be written by experts on the subject. They knew their history but they didn’t have a clue how to write about it for children. So with Horrible Histories, instead of an expert who couldn’t write, they approached a children’s author who knew nothing about history.
I get all my facts from research. I do my research and say ‘you will never guess what I discovered’ and ‘phwoar, this is great’. It is actually a simple answer. I say I am not an expert in history and this is why they work.
Q: Have you ever found any facts which were too horrible to include?
A: Well the publishers have said so. For example when the Vikings invaded they became settlers and had families here. But these settlers were as vicious as the Vikings and when they invaded a Viking village they would find a Viking child, swing it by its legs and bash its brains out. But when I told the publishers they said ‘we can’t have that’ which is strange as I can’t see it is any worse than some of the other parts which have been included.
On the other hand there are facts which some people feel you can’t talk about, say in World War II. For example when we came to the television series, we were sitting round the table and we talked all about the bombings and the Blackout and got that sorted. Then we got to the Holocaust and there were six or seven pages and they read them in silence and then said ‘of course we can’t do that’. I am actually quite proud of the fact that television can’t do the Holocaust but I can.
In fact I have only ever had one comment about it and that was very recent when I received a letter from a Jewish woman saying her Rabbi had told her Jewish children should not be exposed to facts about the Holocaust until they are 13 and what age were my books aimed at? But it isn’t a matter of age, a child is ready when they are ready.
Schools lie to children about history. When I went to school it was all about the Romans. It was the Romans who brought civilisation, the Romans who gave us water supplies and aqueducts, the Romans who brought us straight roads – that is what they told us all the time. But the Romans were the most evil people there were. They are the only people who killed people for sport. Thousands of them would go to an arena and watch people killed for sport.
Q: This tour is Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians. Why do you think these two eras are particularly appealing to children?
A: The Tudors were on the cusp between the Middle Ages and the modern ages. In some ways they were very modern and stable and yet in others they were totally barbaric. People were being burnt alive, hanged, drawn and quartered. It was a time of real upheaval. Part of the reason the Tudors are so popular is that children study them in school. Some numpty in Whitehall said ‘I think children should learn about the Tudors’. So it is all about the Tudors, the Victorians, the Vikings and World War Two. Children learn nothing about the Saxons, or the Normans, the Middle Ages or the Georgians. All because someone somewhere said children can’t.